Space opera and… chocolate?! What an intriguing mix! We just had to dig into what inspired Amber Royer’s Chocoverse series.
Chocolate and sci-fi! These aren’t a traditional combination. How and why did you come up with this mix?
One of my all-time favorite writing quotes is this one from Toni Morrison:
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Free Chocolate was that book for me. It combines a lot of my favorite things: characters who are foodies, the adventure of space opera, the over-the-top drama of telenovela/soap opera, a few elements stolen from the mystery genre . . . basically my entire Netflix “watch it again” list.
It took time, though, for it all to come together. My husband and I had been doing presentations on culinary herbs for the local herb society (you want some creepy novel fodder – listen to a herbalist talk about poisons), and we came up with a demo on herbs and chocolate. About that same time, Royal Caribbean signed me on to do lectures aboard a couple of their cruises, and one of the bean to bar chocolate guys I had met at the Dallas Chocolate Festival (one of the first years of the fest) had donated chocolate samples for me to do single source tastings of craft chocolate aboard ship. This met with mixed results: a lot of people didn’t think the chocolates that demonstrated the range and flavor profiles possible from Theobroma cacao grown in different regions, using different variables in the drying and roasting processes tasted “chocolaty” enough. They weren’t prepared for chocolates that had more in common with fine wine, and wanted a familiar, uniform taste possible only with blended source commercial chocolate. And yet – other attendees said I’d sold them on single-source chocolate. (And hey, I can appreciate different things about both. Especially using blended chocolate as a vehicle for other flavors, such as peanut butter or hazelnut, or for baking.)
My last cruise sailed out of Baltimore, and we basically followed a hurricane headed for Haiti, so people were complaining that their vacations were ruined because the pools were shut down and the shops were closed. I’d been out on the deck just before they closed it, and I’d seen a pool chair fly past, so this seemed like a reasonable precaution to me. And the whole area around the shops smelled like cream de menthe, because we’d hit water rough enough to be knocking bottles of booze off the shelves. So the idea of a shore excursion was super extra appealing. That was how we got to meet a family of cacao farmers in Samana, Dominican Republic, and to taste cacao pulp straight off the tree.
About the same time, I had come across an article about the history of coffee, and how hard the original growing region had tried to hold onto their monopoly. (No one would sell coffee beans that hadn’t been boiled first, so that they couldn’t be planted). This kept the prices high, and at the same time caused increased demand for an easier way to get coffee in other parts of the world. So I was thinking about how history has happened, and we take whatever benefits as givens. We may complain at how much a cappuccino costs from a coffee shop, but never stop to think about what it would be like if we had only heard of coffee as something other people get to drink, or worse, had maybe tasted it once – and couldn’t afford to buy it again.
History is complicated and messy, and you can’t untangle the effects it has on culinary culture – or fashion, or other parts of life. You can’t go back to a time without pizza or Spam Musubi (or even recent creations like Korean tacos), or erase the equally blended cultures – who have established their own history and identity – that have created such dishes.
So I wanted to tell a story of future history that was equally messy. In the Chocoverse, there are no easy answers as to who is in the right. I mean, Bo commits treason against her planet in the opening chapters of the first book. But she’s not wrong in thinking that holding on to chocolate is creating a threat to her planet. She’s also not right in believing that her actions will provide a simple fix.
There are ugly secrets and hidden motivations aplenty in the Chocoverse, on both personal and planetary scales (not all of which I have had time to bring to light yet). Which I why the telenovela structure becomes the perfect vehicle for telling this story. It’s convoluted and escaping off the page, but you are given enough – clearly and logically – to care about Bo’s understanding of her universe as she grows in maturity.
A lot of sci-fi is heavy and dark, but you have gone for light and fun. Why did you want to write something fun? Why is it important to have lighthearted sci-fi?
If you ever meet me in person, you’ll find I’m the first one to go for the joke whether the setting calls for it or not – especially if I think we might wind up being friends. I’m not very different on the page. Writing for me is about psychological self-healing, and humor is my chief coping mechanism, so the fact that I can be funny means that, no matter what is going on in life, I’m on some level okay.
Humor is also a way to get people to connect with your story’s themes, especially if you want to draw people in to a world that might otherwise be uncomfortable. Look at what Pratchett did in Going Postal. He could have written a dark, serious story about how overwork and inefficiency was driving the workers in this otherworldly post office insane, and had his main character be a detective trying to uncover the gritty, gory details after they started killing off anyone who dared still write paper letters. It would have gotten his point across – but not to nearly as many readers as are caught up in the whimsy of the invention of stamps by Moist’s inept staff, and the positively Around-the-World-in-80-Days idea of racing the bad guys to deliver a message.
Not to say that there aren’t a number of bodies hitting the ground in Going Postal – after all Moist’s predecessors “predeceased” him within weeks of each other, in the same building. Likewise, in my Chocoverse series, there’s death aplenty. Bo’s being hunted by an assassin, who kills someone who has helped her – right in front of her. She also witnesses an alien execution, rather up close. But what keeps this on the light side of things is Bo’s attitude – she never loses her own sense of humor, which gives the reader psychological cues that Bo is able to cope with the problems at hand.
At heart, Free Chocolate is about overcoming prejudice, and major themes include love despite cultural misunderstanding, and mercy and hope triumphing under even the darkest circumstances. A fun adventure involving wacky characters fighting and falling in love makes all of that easier to swallow. But, hopefully, it leaves the reader with a lot of deeper thoughts to digest.
Hope, especially, lends itself to humor. Which is why light, fun stories are still important. Especially in Science Fiction, which is traditionally supposed to be about the world’s hopes (with Fantasy representing dreams and Horror highlighting nightmares). Fun stories about flying to the moon are, in part, what inspired us to get there. People keep asking me how I can write a story about chocolate set in the future, when scientists are predicting the demise of cacao trees within the next fifty years. I simply answer that I’m writing about a world where somebody saves it.
Sci-fi with alien cultures necessarily involves some representation of culture clash, and your books also feature a mix of English and Spanish. What did you hope to achieve by representing multiple cultures on – and off – Earth?
I wanted to be true to my subject matter, so if chocolate becomes the most important resource Earth has, I needed a protagonist from somewhere inside the “chocolate belt,” the chocolate growing region 20 degrees North or South of the Equator. Being from Texas, I am much more familiar with Mexican culture and Mexican Spanish than I am with Africa/African languages (though, yes, more of the world’s chocolate is grown in Africa than Central/South America). Spanish is an extremely regional language, and I am a language learner who reads/writes a lot more than I can carry in conversation. It is a matter of practicality that Bo talks like some of my friends who are originally from/still have family in northern Mexico, El Paso and California. (Though all errors are my own – lo siento, chicas! Las quiero.)
The Chocoverse books are all about culture clash – and overcoming it. Bo is in love with a guy from the same planet that believes they are doing a public service by making all commodities “open source.” The Krom were Earth’s first first contact, so by the time Earthlings got off the planet far enough to realize they’d lost hold on commodities like cane sugar and cinnamon, the best Kona coffee was already being grown on the other side of the galaxy. Earthlings, for the most part, consider Krom pirates and thieves, and Krom (with their longer life spans) took their first glance at Earth in the days of Victorian England and never forgot the filth of urban London. So when Frank (an Earthling, who is dating Bo’s mother at the beginning of Free Chocolate) finds out a Krom is dating Bo, he immediately questions Brill’s motives. Which are, admittedly, a bit shady. The idea that true love could grow out of this hazy bubble of misunderstanding and misdirection seems a bit impossible. The idea that that love could change the galaxy – that’s the power of the telenovela.
Conflicts with a number of other alien cultures serve to provide tension and plot issues, and to reveal that things have more than one side – because past interplanetary conflicts prove that the Krom have a point in handling commodities the way they do. So again, no easy answers, no one completely in the right.
What sci-fi served as inspiration for the Chocoverse?
There’s a number of references in Free Chocolate to Star Trek – mostly because we didn’t get the optimistic First-Contact Roddenberry promised us, and we’re certainly not in the middle of a Federation, taking leadership roles. I love Trek, so it had to be a starting point, but there’s so much about it that is too easy for Earth’s entry into a larger galaxy, and I wanted to riff on that. (In Book 2, there’s an awesome moment where Bo meets a Zantite Trek fan – and the optimism that scene imbues gives me chills.)
Because there’s a commodity at the center of the conflict, a number of people have compared it to a chocolate-covered Dune. And that’s fair. Dune manages to bring in a huge amount of tension over Spice. A story about a commodity could easily become boring, and I remind myself of how Dune makes the story always about the people, never about the actual commodity. When I hand-sell Free Chocolate, I sometimes start with, “So the aliens land,” and end with, “And chocolate becomes one of the most important substances in the Galaxy.” And half the time, the would-be-reader shrugs and says, “Isn’t it already?”
As you get farther into the Chocoverse series, you meet a character that harkens back a bit to the way Verner Vinge handled viewpoint in A Fire Upon the Deep. I don’t think I could have played with alien consciousnesses in quite the same way without having read Vinge’s work.
Pitch the Chocoverse to our readers! Why should we be reading the series?
So the aliens land and they buy samples of commodities, but due to a translation mistake, they miss chocolate, and chocolate becomes one of the most important substances in the galaxy. Earth has a war over it, which completely restructures everything. And it becomes an act of treason, punishable by death at the hands of the Global Court of Earth, to take viable cocoa beans off-planet.
Earthling Bo’s Krom boyfriend, Brill, convinces her that Earth has held the monopoly on chocolate too long, and now that various alien races have a taste for the finished product, it is only a matter of time before Earth’s borders get pushed open by force to harvest the commodity. And when the company in charge of chocolate shows one more abuse of power, Bo finds herself in the position to steal and unprocessed cacao pod.
You guys should read it if you like offbeat characters and unusual alien cultures. Or food. There is a ton of chocolate eaten, burned, stolen, destroyed, fought over, given as gifts and lost in this series. People keep saying the books make them hungry. One of my favorite reviews says, “This means you have to think about Free Chocolate in terms of a mash-up of Barbarella (without the naughty bits), The Great British Bake Off and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
You should read it if you like a bit of sweet romance inside your sci-fi. These relationships are important to the characters (and in some ways form a metaphor for the relationships between the characters’ planets’) but this series is really more focused on the space opera. It is all about saving Earth and helping it find a place in the Galaxy.
You should read it if you like geeky in-references to other sci-fi and pop culture. I’ve given you a verse where Earth’s science fiction has become a bit of a Cult-Classic thing in the rest of the galaxy, because we thought up so many inaccurate things, before we ever realized there even WAS a larger galaxy out there to interact with.
Amber Royer is the author of the high-energy comedic space opera Chocoverse series (Free Chocolate, Pure Chocolate coming March 2019). She teaches enrichment and continuing education creative writing classes for teens and adults through both the University of Texas at Arlington and Writing Workshops Dallas. She is the discussion leader for the Saturday Night Write writing craft group. She spent five years as a youth librarian, where she organized teen writers’ groups and teen writing contests. In addition to two cookbooks co-authored with her husband, Amber has published a number of articles on gardening, crafting and cooking for print and online publications.